Smith, Elliott look to continue JRM's strong start
February 28, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Needless to say, JR Motorsports has had worse weekends than the one the organization turned in at Daytona.
"It was certainly a really good week to be at the shop, to be at JR Motorsports with our win on Saturday and of course the boss going out and winning on Sunday, it didn't hurt," said Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith, who earned a victory in the season-opening Drive4COPD 300.
"Lots of happy people and a lot of smiling faces and a lot of pumped up guys working in the shop on Monday."
And the boss Smith is referring to?
Dale Earnhardt Jr., of course, who took home his second-career Daytona 500 win -- this one driving for Hendrick Motorsports -- after a six-hour rain delay in one of the most memorable events in NASCAR history. Combine that with Smith's win and 18-year-old Nationwide rookie Chase Elliott's debut in which he showed he can hang with a more elite field of drivers than he's ever seen and yeah, it's fair to say spirits are still riding high nearly a week later.
"Anytime you win at Daytona, it's exciting and I've worked since I was four-years-old to hopefully have an opportunity to win there and to do it felt really special, whether it's the 300 or the 500. Then to have somebody that's a close friend of mine … and my boss too … win the 500 on the next day just made the whole week more meaningful on top of that," Smith said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
"To be able to say I've got wins at Daytona, Darlington, some of the really special places we go, certainly means a lot. With that said, I'd like to get one there on a Sunday, though."
Now, the focus turns to Phoenix, where Smith struggled much earlier in his Nationwide career with a trio of mid-20s finishes from 2005-06, but seemed to have the one-mile oval figured out last November, earning a fourth-place finish.
Smith was fourth-fastest in the first practice of the day, with a best speed of 131.627 mph. Considering the steam JRM built up after just about as perfect an opening weekend that an organization could ask for, it puts Smith -- who opened strongly in the 2013 season as well -- in position to get off to another hot start after some offseason changes that included a crew chief switch from Greg Ives to Ryan Pemberton.
"I feel good. The momentum is a huge thing. As we all know, in this sport, momentum plays a huge factor in what we do and having it or not having it. If you don’t have it, sometimes it can be tough to get, if you have it, it can be tough to do some things wrong at times. I think that was big for our team. We went through a lot of changes in the offseason.
"(Phoenix) is a whole different weekend. Now we get to see the stuff that we worked on during the offseason that we worked on as a company more so this weekend than anywhere else. Here and (Las) Vegas, those to me are the two that come to the forefront of where you understand what you did good and what you've got to work hard on and you kind of see which areas you need to fine tune."
Another of the changes that came to JRM included the addition of Elliott, who jumped up to the Nationwide level after a mere nine Camping World Truck Series starts, becoming the youngest full-time driver in the series after just narrowly beating out fellow 18-year-old rookie Dylan Kwasniewski for that distinction.
It became quickly became evident that Smith, 30, already has high hopes for his new teammate. The veteran sung the praises of Elliott -- unprovoked -- after changing the subject in response to a question regarding Kwasniewski's entrance to the series.
"We've got Dylan (Kwasniewski), we've also got my teammate, Chase Elliott. I'm fortunate that I'm around Chase a lot. I get to see him; I get to see his demeanor and how he acts and things like that. From Chase's standpoint, it's very impressive and I wish I was as mature and as quick of a learner at that age as he is, he picks stuff up really fast and it just seems like he's always asking questions and always absorbing stuff. … You look around the garage and see some of the young faces coming up through and I think it's very promising for our sport and it shows how bright the future is and what's coming down the pipeline."
Elliott brushed the wall outside of Turn 2 about 10 minutes into the first practice, but wound up 12th-fastest of the 37 drivers who participated in the opening session. In the final practice, Elliott again placed 12th, while Smith placed 16th.
Kevin Harvick will sit in the driver's seat of the No. 88 Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in last week's Nationwide race, but he and Elliott will look to stake their claim among the series powerhouses in the Blue Jeans Go Green 200, presented by Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives (Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET, ABC). Smith, on the other hand, plans on backing up his Daytona win with a victory in the desert.
"This is a very important weekend in the season and it pays 46 or 47 points just like last weekend did. We want to get all 46 or 47 of them."